By Richard Michelson
In 1979 I opened R. Michelson Galleries and one of the first people to walk through the door was Norton Juster—though I didn’t know who he was just yet. He had brought some of his drawings to frame; I quoted the price. He said it was too expensive and instructed me to frame only half of each picture. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was kidding – forty-two years later I am still not sure—but mimicking his deadpan tone, I suggested I double the price and offer him a 50% discount. He agreed that was a reasonable compromise and promised to pay me yesterday since he wouldn’t have any money until tomorrow.
Knowing Norton is the closest I will ever get to living in a Marx Brother’s movie.
It wasn’t until the end of the day that I looked at the name on the check: N. Juster. No, it couldn’t be. He’d said he was an architect and taught at Hampshire College. Surely, he’d have mentioned it. I decided to google his picture but unfortunately the internet hadn’t been invented yet.
I did, however, have my copy of The Phantom Tollbooth at the ready when he returned.
This remembrance is not about that most amazing American classic, Norton’s first book which he wrote in Brooklyn while living downstairs from another aspiring artist named Jules Feiffer, nor is it about their vaudeville schtick – their sixty years of old-married couple arguments and their deep love for each other. You can read about that on-line, or watch the documentary Beyond Expectations. Nor is it about Norton’s many other books, including the Caldecott winning Hello, Goodbye Window (illustrated by Chris Rashka), based his wife, Jeanne, and his life as doting grandparents.
This is, instead, about my Amherst neighbor, who welcomed me and my wife to town by inviting us to his big holiday bash where the food was plentiful (much of it cooked by chef Norton), and when we rang the doorbell, Norton informed us we were 364 days late for last year’s party, but he invited us in, accepted the jar of homemade fudge my wife presented, and reminded us as we left that we were not welcome back the following evening without a new jar of fudge since it had been just shy of a year since our last gift.
Norton in private, I learned, was no different than Public Norton. A great raconteur, he would regale me with stories when we lunched (Chinese food or the corner pub; never fancy). Norton loved nothing more than banter and puns. I would joke that he wasn’t a real writer because all he did was copy down whatever brilliant words spontaneously tumbled out of his mouth.
In 2008 my gallery teamed up with Reader to Reader to offer an award for contribution to children’s literacy. Norton was the inaugural recipient for his long and tireless support of the organization. The prize was soon renamed in his honor, and Norton faithfully showed up to the event for the next eleven years, holding court, entertaining fans of all generations (those who approached too reverently were quickly disarmed by his warmth and humor), and insisting he had been misled, and assumed the spoils would go to him yearly, or he’d have never consented to his name on the award.
After Jeanne’s death in 2018, Norton was bereft. She was his “rock, constant companion, and better half” for 54 years. His house was on my route home so I stopped by– daily at first and then weekly –to check in on him, chat, and deliver dumplings. If I was late, he would call to make sure I hadn’t forgotten where he lived. In truth, the pleasure was all mine. The twinkle in his eyes had dimmed, but the stories kept coming; his childhood, his travels, industry gossip. Norton has now passed through his own Tollbooth to unknown lands, where his wit, sense of play, and kindness will surely guide him. My wife and I were lucky to have him in our world, and the world is lucky he has left behind his words and books as a gift to us all.